Portal: The Skinny

October 15th, 2007

I’m loving all the swirling rumors and speculations, the secret extraction and youtubing. But now that the game is out I will come clean and reveal the inside story. I will avoid spoilers as much as possible here (though you should not read the lyrics if you really want to be surprised).

The game is called Portal and it is awesome. The song is called “Still Alive” and it plays as part of the end credits when you finish the game. This all came about when a couple of Valve folks came to one of my shows in Seattle long ago, and followed up with me afterwards asking if I’d be interested in working with them in some capacity. I’ve long been a fan of Half-Life, so I said yes yes yes. We got together to talk about a couple of ideas, and somehow we decided it would be a good idea for me to write a song in the voice of one of the characters in the game, something that would sort of tie up the story arc at the end.

The character is this hilarious passive aggressive personality, which is obviously a perfect subject for me. I write about that sort of thing all the time. I got an advance copy of the game when it was nearly finished, played through it, talked with the writers, and tried to get inside this character’s head as best I could. I bought my first ukulele specifically to record this song, it just seemed right for it. (Or maybe I wrote the song that way so I could buy a ukulele, hard to say.)

I recorded a version with some scratch vocals and we sent it to the voice actress who did that character in the game, Ellen McLain. We all went into the studio to record her vocals, then did all the fancy computer sound things they do to make her sound like a computer voice. Ellen’s a classically trained soprano, and a very talented voice actress – she has this character down perfectly, and she did a great job conveying emotion in a non-emotional way. Between her and the very strong writing behind her character’s dialog, it was hard for me to not end up looking good in all this.

Did I mention the game is awesome?

To answer some of your questions:

I believe that Valve has some plans on making this track officially available through Steam and perhaps elsewhere, also maybe a version with me singing the song. I don’t know when that will happen, but sometime soon I’m sure. It’s really their ball game at this point, because they did commission this song from me. I’m not going to interfere with whatever they want to do with it, so I won’t be posting it here.

Lyrics and chords are below (hooray!). Someday I or Valve may also want to make the source tracks available, but that’s further down the line. I have no sheet music, because that is not how the J-Dog rolls.

I’m very happy to have been a part of this – the team of people behind the game, and indeed everyone I’ve met at Valve are all such talented and creative people, and it was a privilege to work with them. Long ago there was a Playstation game called Skullmonkeys that had a great soundtrack and this awesome song about a secret bonus room (both written by a guy named Terry Scott Taylor) that just blew my mind. I’ve always loved the way that song broke the rules about what music in a game is supposed to do, so it was great to have the opportunity to do something fun and unusual like that. Thanks for all your kind comments about it.

The cake is a lie!!!!!

LYRICS:

This was a triumph
I’m making a note here: huge success
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction
Aperture Science
We do what we must because we can
For the good of all of us
Except the ones who are dead
But there’s no sense crying over every mistake
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake
And the science gets done and you make a neat gun
For the people who are still alive

I’m not even angry
I’m being so sincere right now
Even though you broke my heart and killed me
And tore me to pieces
And threw every piece into a fire
As they burned it hurt because
I was so happy for you
Now these points of data make a beautiful line
And we’re out of beta, we’re releasing on time
So I’m glad I got burned, think of all the things we learned
For the people who are still alive

Go ahead and leave me
I think I’d prefer to stay inside
Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you
Maybe Black Mesa
That was a joke, ha ha, fat chance
Anyway this cake is great
It’s so delicious and moist
Look at me still talking when there’s science to do
When I look out there it makes me glad I’m not you
I’ve experiments to run, there is research to be done
On the people who are still alive

And believe me I am still alive
I’m doing science and I’m still alive
I feel fantastic and I’m still alive
And while you’re dying I’ll be still alive
And when you’re dead I will be still alive
Still alive
Still alive

CHORDS:

D Bm (repeat like crazy)
This was a triumph...

Em              A    
It's hard to overstate my satisfaction

D Bm (repeat like crazy)
Aperture Science...

Em              A    
For the good of all of us

BbM7
Except the ones who are dead

F                     C          Bb         F
But there's no sense crying over every mistake

F                     C          Bb         F
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake

Gm                     C             F        Dm
And the science gets done and you make a neat gun

Bb                   A         D  Bm (repeat some more)
For the people who are still alive

442 Responses to “Portal: The Skinny”

  1. JoCo says:

    Phil: That’s a B Major 7th chord, that’s what the M means. Bm7 would be a B Minor 7th chord. You can find fingerings for it at any one of the online guitar chord sites, they’re a good resource for stuff like this.

  2. Andrew T. Coleman says:

    I love the song. Heard of it while researching portal, and I am now learning how to play it. I am kind of surprised that this thread isn’t dead yet, and yes, I am geek enough to have read every post…

    Oh, and JoCo, two things.

    1. You haven’t said yet what key the uke in this song is tuned to, and

    2. While reading the wiki page (joco wiki) for Octopus, it says that you said that the origional youtube octopus vs shark video was probably against copywrite rules, while the video is under the official national geographic channel on youtube… and I am the only person who has left a comment about your song on it. And yes, I am that much of a nerd (mostly of the nerdcore songwriter blog reading variety).

  3. Dick Platt says:

    Hello J-Dog! I have just completed Portal and I now have become obsessed with “Still Alive”. It’s a beautifully written song that encompasses so much at the end of the game. I’ve been learning to play it, but I just read that you play it on a Ukulele! So, I’m going to dig mine out and give it a spin. Keep up the excellent work and I look forward to your next project. P.S. If you like parody Heavy Metal then check out my band Evil Scarecrow. It might be up your street. Lots of Love Dick (Brother Pain) x x x

  4. Steph says:

    I love the soundtrack, you and valve did a great thing with the whole ending sequence. Rarely did a game have such a great finish!

  5. Heather says:

    Wow, this song is genius!! The game is awesome, and this was a cool way to end it!

  6. Heather says:

    And thanks for posting the chords!

  7. Jameson says:

    THE CAKE IS A LIE.

    That is all.

  8. ValentineS says:

    I heard the song first on the piano medley you mentioned a bit ago, but only just looked into the song today. I couldn’t find it with your other songs so I started getting the story on it. I passed on Portal, but now that I know what a sick, twisted, funny song it really is (oh, and the game too) I’m gonna pick up a copy. I’m looking for a way to let them know they got a sale directly from having your song in the game.

    Oh, I’m bringing the crew to see you live in Chicago or Ann Arbor depending on schedules (probably Ann Arbor). Bring your CDs and keep a set back for me will ya? I was gonna buy the entire MP3 set, but I’d rather pickup the CDs.
    :)

  9. Trevor says:

    This game was great and the song is alsome! The cake is not a lie I have found it

  10. dag says:

    I finally played Portal, it was great… When the credits came up at the end I instantly fell in love with this song! It’s absolutely brilliant!!… now I just need to get my friends to play this game so they can enjoy this song as much as I do =)

    I think I’ve listened to this song 20 times today… still not over it. You’re a genius!

  11. Brody says:

    I LOVED the song and the way it ties into the whole game. this is by far the best credit song i have ever heard. you rock

  12. KimOhNo says:

    still listening and humming every day :)

  13. Salomon says:

    I’ve a question — when you play the song backwards, you hear some… strange things. I guess you knew that, but why did you do it? :P

  14. JoCo says:

    Salomon – I don’t know what you mean. Seriously. What do you hear when you play it backwards?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Backmasking is a myth, basically. You play anything backwards and you’ll hear some strange words. The human brain just looks for them. But it’s never intentionally done by the artist.

  16. patagoniantruthfish says:

    Hi. I’m late to the party. Just wanted to say (like everyone above) wow! What an awesome song. I’m off to the iTunes store now to buy it. There really is cake.

  17. Justin says:

    well my sister played portal on the xbox 360 and she did find the cake the cake is not a lie i seen it with my own two eyes on my own tv screen!

  18. Topher says:

    This is my Favorite song out of all of your work.

    Portal was a wonderful game, and I was sad to finish it. Still Alive was a wonderful surprise, and great way to finish the game.

  19. Ashley Foy says:

    This song is amazing. I’m thrilled you posted the guitar chords, thank you SO much for that.

  20. ?!?! says:

    what dose this song mean. wikipedia says it’s chells report

  21. Frungi says:

    ?!?!: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, according to itself… wait, what?
    Anyway, what do you mean what does it mean? The song’s about the game, and the fact that GLaDOS is still alive.

  22. Miss says:

    Who brought the cake?

  23. BrianJ. says:

    Just finished Portal (yeah, I’m behind the curve). And, I watched the credits like I do on every game. What an awesome surprise to find your song! I was practically singing along with it by the end! I love how ironic you make it! Genius. Just bought it on amazon. Thanks.

  24. PJG says:

    What can I say that hasn’t been said?!

    – Phil

  25. Blitzenn says:

    I think you should pursue and album of songs in the portal theme, passive aggressive computer stuff, as a follow-up. It would sell like crazy to all of those portal fans. Make it about systems that have over-arching desires to ‘fix’ humanity, social problems, deviant nature or even regular human habit. It’s that slightly disturbing mis-interpretation the computer voice takes that makes it very enjoyable. It’s a niche, wring it for everything it’s worth! (before someone else does).

  26. Winston Smith says:

    Hey Jon, is there an official version of YOUR rendition rather than Ellens? If you ignore the lyrics, it totally doesn’t sound like a videogame song! xD

    Great track though, and the lyrics give it that Gamer humour ;)

  27. A Friend says:

    I played this game about a year ago and have had the song in my head ever since. My girlfriend at the time and I played through the game and loved it immensely. But, more importantly, the song became very special to us. In time, we came to a painful end, but remained friendly. We talked months after the breakup and we discussed how our filters had changed and the song had gone from bouncy and fun to a bittersweet farewell. Now, many months later, the pain of the split has subsided and we’ve spoken of the song’s newest meaning, “So I’m glad I got burned, think of all the things we learned…” Thank you for writing a song that works so masterfully. I never in my life thought I would call a song from a video game a masterpiece in its own right, but this one truly is.

  28. Mathew Pierce says:

    I truly appreciate this song. Being in the software industry, even though a different sector (printing and imaging) I know the pressures and frustration on getting a project to completion. Knowing that a class from Digipen had produced this game (under a different name and project – Narbacular Drop I believe), when the lines, “Now these points of data make a beautiful line. And we’re out of beta, we’re releasing on time” were sung I actually teared up a bit knowing what those guys had gone through. Thanks for capturing that bit in the song, it was truly meaningful on another level.

  29. MusicGear4u says:

    The cake is a lie! Very well done sir…this is a perfect fit and impressive all around.

  30. Steve Cash says:

    Hey, loved the song! Just wondering, did you ever get a chance to listen to the cover of it I made?

    Download-able from:

    http://www.4shared.com/file/98054568/64922241/stillalivemodern.html

    I would LOVE your feedback! Thanks!

  31. I’m late to the Portal party, but I just completed it and the sweet icing on the cake was that song, which I liked so much I just bought it on iTunes. Fantastic.

    BTW, I saw you at the Brooklyn Book Fair, with David Cross, Jonathan Ames, et al, and really enjoyed your set.

  32. The cake may be a lie, but the icing is very real. This song is awesome, and I’ve had it stuck in my head for a week straight ever since a friend pointed me to it. (I’ve been meaning to play Portal, but that hasn’t happened.)

  33. Just wanted to stop by and say thank you for the brilliant song! Its amazing how it’s able to be kinda sweet and cute and yet simultaneously creepy and foreboding. You obviously had a great character to write for, and I hope you’re involved with the sequel somehow. I’m doing my best to not look up details about it so I can be surprised when it finally rolls around.

    Anywho, awesome work. Hope all is well.

  34. dcw says:

    and this, i believe, is the monument to your success – yes, more so than having it as a playable song in RockBand:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6m5TuxdkfkE

  35. Desemac says:

    I don’t know anything about the game, but I love this song. I’m going to have my little band learn it and perform it as a nonsense song at shows… probably some folks will know more about it than I ever will, but I think it’s great. As nonsense (to me) it’s got a great story. Hmm… how do I license it from you if I want to record it??? :-)

  36. Nick says:

    I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!! I LOST THE GAME!!!

  37. Wow… after all this time… STILL ALIVE…
    :)

  38. Daniel K says:

    This may be the longest comment thread I’ve even seen. The Library of Congress is looking into it.

  39. Evan Edinger says:

    I wish someone would post the official chords for the live acoustic version :/

  40. Munkiman says:

    [quote]I wish someone would post the official chords for the live acoustic version :/[/quote]
    I’m actually working it out now, it’s really weird because in the original blog post John says it starts in D, but on the acoustic he starts by picking notes from an A chord. That’s not surprising because I scale down a few notes sometimes for ease of playing or singing which I assumed he was doing. What makes it weird to me is, the tab shows it as D-Bm-D-Bm then Em, etc… I’m sure this is correct for the game music. On the acoustic version though, he starts in A and still moves to Em. WTF>??

    All that aside, here is my current progress for the acoustic translation of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxNmeMklFk8

    Intro and verse
    —————————————————————————
    —-2—-2—–2—-2———-3—–3——0——0——-2—2—2—
    —2-2-2–2–2-2-2–2——-4–4–4-4——1——1—-2-2-2-2-2-2–
    –2—4—–2—-4———-4—–4———————-2—-4—2—–
    ——————————————–2——2———————–
    ——————————————-0——0————————

    The rest should be fairly easy using his tab. Even though it seems like a different key in the acoustic version, it still matches somehow. I’m stupid though so don’t mind me, just play along with him and see for yourself =)

  41. Munkiman says:

    Oh and I guess to oversimplify, the chord progression once things get moving is:

    A-F# (over and over and over)

    B – E – A

  42. StillAlive says:

    A – F#m
    Bm – E

    A – F#m
    Bm – E – F

    -change key (chorus)-

    C – G – F – C
    C – G – F – C
    Dm – G – C – Am
    F – E – A …